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A good fight: SLO County mourns the loss of Supervisor Adam Hill

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As news of San Luis Obispo County 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill's sudden death spread through the county on Aug. 6, reactions poured in on every form of media. Locals expressed their shock while remembering Hill as a passionate and unwavering advocate for the poor, homeless, and otherwise vulnerable in the community.

"What was extraordinary about him," SLO County 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson told New Times, "is I never came across anybody as committed to the full breadth of his constituency—especially those who had little in the way of material resources. Those who had the least in this world had a true champion in Adam. He cared deeply about everybody."

Hill, 54, was found unresponsive in his Shell Beach home on the afternoon of Aug. 6. His cause of death is unconfirmed—the city of Pismo Beach declined to disclose details on the case, citing an active investigation, and the SLO County Sheriff-Coroner's Office said his death is currently under coroner investigation.

In March, Hill attempted to commit suicide and had been on medical leave from work since July to seek specialized treatment for mental illness. For a period in 2018, Hill scaled back his duties to address what he called lifelong depression, and he became increasingly open about his mental health struggles after that.

First elected supervisor in 2008, Hill had just won a fourth term as the 3rd District representative for South County in the March primary election.

"I'll have more to say later," Hill said in a statement following a suicide attempt in March, "but right now my main focus is on restoring my health so I can return to the job I love."

Karen Bright, a friend and Grover Beach City Council member, told New Times that she saw Hill on Wednesday, Aug. 5, at a SLO Council of Governments meeting over Zoom. It was the first meeting she saw the supervisor attend since his medical leave—and she was overjoyed.

"We were so happy to see him there. It was just so great," Bright said. "And then Thursday ... I just couldn't believe it. I almost hit the floor. It's just heartbreaking."

A New Jersey native, Hill ran and won his first SLO County supervisor campaign in 2008 against incumbent Jerry Lenthall. He'd previously worked as an English professor at Cal Poly and, before that, as a staffer in Sen. Bill Bradley (D-New Jersey)'s office.

Supporters at the time saw in him a special mix of energy, intelligence, and optimism.

"I liked him right away," Bright said. "He was very outgoing, determined; he had very high ideals."

IN MEMORY SLO County 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill passed away on Aug. 6. He was 54. Hill served for 12 years on the Board of Supervisors. This photo was taken during an interview with New Times in 2012. - FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • File Photo By Steve E. Miller
  • IN MEMORY SLO County 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill passed away on Aug. 6. He was 54. Hill served for 12 years on the Board of Supervisors. This photo was taken during an interview with New Times in 2012.

Throughout his 12-year tenure in office, Hill became known for his passionate and at times brash style of leadership, fiercely championing causes from open space to homelessness.

He's credited with helping prioritize homelessness at the county level, for shepherding open space projects like the Pismo Preserve, for steering the county through the Great Recession and Diablo Canyon Power Plant's imminent closure, for pushing for reforms at the SLO County Jail, and for unabashedly representing the local working class and poor.

"A lot of people care about the most vulnerable among us," Supervisor Gibson said, "but I don't think anybody displayed the kind of outward, constant, energic defense and support of them that Adam did. He stood head and shoulders above any of the rest of us."

When Hill opened up about his own mental health challenges, Gibson said he used his personal story to shine a broader light on the importance of quality and accessible mental health services countywide.

"He always pointed out that we needed to do better—we needed to put resources, put our effort, our intention to taking care of mental illness in the community," Gibson said. "He would immediately move it from what he was going through to what we should be doing as a community."

Locals who worked with Hill said he cared deeply about the issues facing the community and wasn't afraid to challenge people and share his opinion—popular or not.

"He did his homework and he asked the right questions," said Janna Nichols, executive director of the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition in Grover Beach. "[Homelessness] is a pretty common topic around our table now, but he was a champion long before it was recognized by some other community leaders. I credit him with helping the community come to understand that it's something that we all have to come together to look at."

As an environmental leader, Hill threw his support behind the Pismo Preserve, the South County trail system that the Land Conservancy of SLO County recently opened to the public.

"As far back as I can remember, he supported our projects and really put his energy behind the Pismo Preserve and the Octagon Barn Center and was instrumental in helping both of those projects come to fruition," said Kaila Dettman, executive director of the Land Conservancy. "He helped us navigate permitting requirements. He helped advocate for funding at the state level for those projects. He didn't hesitate to write a letter of support. He really helped on all facets. I, and the whole Land Conservancy family, are deeply saddened. I think he still had a lot of good things to do for the county."

Hill's passionate and at times fiery temperament brought him success as a supervisor but it also landed him in controversy. He feuded with many community members and became the subject of various accusations during his time in office. In early March, on the same day Hill attempted suicide, FBI agents served a search warrant at Hill's government office. An FBI spokesperson declined to comment on Aug. 12 on what the agency called an ongoing investigation.

One of Hill's most public recent dust-ups was with Pismo Beach resident Mark Burnes in 2018. Burnes had criticized Hill in a Tribune letter to the editor, and Hill sent him a private message in response telling him to "fuck off." The message went public and drew criticism.

Burnes told New Times that after not speaking with Hill for months, he recently ran into the supervisor at the Shell Beach Brewhouse. The two men shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. Then when Hill left the restaurant, he approached Burnes a second time.

"He said, 'Hey, thank you for shaking my hand and thank you for the nice words,'" Burnes recalled. "Two minutes after he left, the bartender put a drink in front of me. He said, 'This is from Adam Hill.'

"That was the last interaction I had with him," Burnes continued. "I'm really glad that I did have a chance to run into him. It was a kick in the gut when I heard that he passed. I'm still sad about it. Politically, he and I agreed on most everything. His fierce defense of the defenseless, his defense of the homeless, of the poor, of affordable housing, his ability to work with the big companies and small companies alike—it's a commendable thing." Δ

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